Every year, the beginning of June brings fine weather all across the island of Ireland. It always coincides with the start of the Leaving Certificate, the exams that mark the end of secondary school for Irish teenagers. These days will be among the most stressful that these young people will ever experience. The final exams represent two years of study taking in seven subjects. Generally, the final paper is worth 100% of the total grade, although subjects such as languages include some form of prior assessment. Worst of all, the race for points to get into third level education means that there is an enormous amount of pressure on students to get consistently high grades in all subjects.
Last Wednesday, a group of students sat nervously waiting for their first paper of 2009 in one of the 2,000 examination centres in about 800 schools and exam halls around the country. Inside St Oliver’s Community Centre, Drogheda, the male superintendent, a retired teacher living in Dundalk, opened the sealed envelope containing that morning’s English Paper One, Ordinary and Higher Level. He removed the papers and handed them out, instructing each student to place them face down on their desk. At 9.30am, the exam began, the students turned over their papers and started reading through them to get a feel for the questions, hoping that their chosen topics would come up, and that there would be no surprises in store for them.
However, as soon as each student quickly skimmed the paper they realised that something was wrong. Instead of having been given the paper that they had prepared for, English Paper One, they had been given the following day’s Paper Two instead. Over the next few minutes, this group of Irish teenagers did not panic. They read through the paper and noted what questions would be coming up the next day. Then, one of the students alerted the superintendent to the error. He asked everyone to turn over the exam paper and he went to get the proper one. The exam continued, a little late, with the proper paper.
As soon as the students emerged from the hall after midday, they spoke about the paper they had sat, but the paper that they had only seen briefly must have been foremost on their minds. Soon, they were texting their friends in other schools and posting about the content of the following day’s paper on social sites such as Bebo and Facebook. It was also discussed on sites such as boards.ie and Leaving Cert forums on the web. Many people also used Twitter, leading The Irish Times to dub the event as Twittergate. By 4.00 in the afternoon, the majority of Leaving Cert students had a pretty good idea about the content of their next exam.
It was at this stage that one of the students’ parents alerted the school in question that something was amiss. The school then alerted the State Examinations Commission, who obviously weren’t as technologically savvy as the students. The SEC had a backup plan in operation which involved the preparation of a contingency paper in the event of such a scenario. These contingency papers were not kept at the schools for security reasons and there was no way that they would get them to the exam centres in time for the next day. On that evening’s 9.00 News it was announced that the English Paper Two exam would be cancelled for the following day and would be rescheduled to two days later on the vacant Saturday.
The retired schoolteacher’s error could have been a costly mistake for over 50,000 students who had to sit the exam last Saturday. Fortunately, the paper they took that day was similar to the one that was handed out in Drogheda. No harm seemed to have been done. However, the superintendent’s mistake was a little bit more expensive for the Irish taxpayer as it cost €1 million to reschedule the exam. Ouch! I’m not blaming the guy for handing out the wrong paper. That was a human error that could have happened to anyone. But, the superintendent made a bigger mistake by not informing the State Examinations Board of his error as soon as possible. If these guys had known earlier perhaps they could have gotten the contingency papers to the exam centres on time and all the hassle would have been avoided. Nevertheless, I hope he gets off with a suspended sentence. Most of these kids still have a lot to learn about life. Hopefully, this incident will teach them that things don’t always go according to plan in the real world. This might prepare them for adulthood and the school of hard knocks that lies ahead for all of them.
06 School of Hard Knocks – Van Morrison*
* Removed at the request of The Man